Wenhui Chen


Wenhui Chen

Lecturer in East Asian Studies

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Learning Chinese is not merely a matter of mastering the language. Wenhui Chen makes sure students appreciate the manners, traditions, social nuances, and societal norms that are a significant part of life in China.

In America, it is not unusual for students to ask questions during a lecture. In China it can be seen as a sign of disrespect. This fall, Wenhui Chen is coming to Brown to teach students the finer points of Chinese culture.

As a lecturer in East Asian studies, Chen will be using Chinese literature and film to illustrate cultural differences between China and America.

The reason: So that her students can feel confident traveling or studying abroad.

“At the advanced level, it is more important for students to understand Chinese customs because many of them plan to travel to the country or do research there,” Chen said. Problems arise when students speak the language, but are behaving in ways that may be frowned upon whether they know it or not. “I have had students come to me and say. ‘I can’t get used to Chinese life’,” Chen said.

This fall she will be teaching “Advanced Modern Chinese II,” a course designed to increase language proficiency. But understanding social norms can be as important as knowing the language, Chen said. In one film clip, two women are sitting down and then one of them crosses her legs. The gesture makes the older woman angry and the two get into a verbal argument. In much of East Asia it is perceived as rude if women cross their legs when speaking to someone who is older.

Early in her career she realized there was a need to incorporate film into the classroom because some things couldn’t be explained with words. “Cinema is a good way to show students how things work in China because they can see peoples’ reactions,” she said. The differences in social norms extend even to the dinner table where the eldest must have the first bite of a meal.

Chen’s interest in human behavior and cultural differences stems from her educational and work related experience in Chinese language. After graduating from Shangdon Normal University (B.A. in Chinese language and literature), she went on to the Beijing Language and Culture University (M.A. in teaching Chinese as a foreign language).

At the time, Chen’s choice of study was new in academia. It was when Chen first stepped into a classroom as an instructor at Tsinghua University that she realized there were big differences between cultures. “I was shocked everyday,” she said of American students’ behaviors in the classroom. “In China, students are afraid of their teachers. Here, they were having open discussions.”

After teaching proficiency in Chinese for more than seven years, including time at Harvard, Chen was offered a position at Brown to teach advanced level Chinese courses. Chen’s experience in teaching Chinese to college students and her ability to incorporate culture in language instruction courses complements Brown’s existing language program, said Janine Sawada, professor of East Asian and religious studies.

Having taught at two Ivy League institutions, Chen knew Brown’s reputation. “Brown students gave me the impression that they were proud of being Brown grads, but most importantly they were more willing to accept differences,” she said of her students in Beijing.

And then there is the lighter side: “I came because I heard the students here are the happiest.”

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